An ancient millionaire’s undying devotion for Lord Rama
Meanwhile, he did his best to live up to the ideal of Lord Rama’s generosity.
Nothing hurts us more than being betrayed by those we call our own. The Ramayana and Mahabharata are both shattering examples of this. But its protagonists are heroes, heroines and gods. Whereas the tale I would like to retell this week is about someone who was not a hero, saint or god. His name was Jana Jaswant and he was a regular person of simple, straightforward piety, whose origin and whereabouts are unknown.
Yet his story gained a hold in the devotional landscape of India. It found a place in the Bhakta Vijaya, the Book of Saints, compiled by a person called Mahipati in the 18th century in what is now Maharashtra. The Bhakta Vijaya was translated from Marathi into several modern Indian languages and also into English. It is frequently drawn upon in religious discourses involving stories about the people of the Bhakti tradition, and so we may say that Jana Jaswant still lives on in the Indian mind.
Jana Jaswant was a devotee of Lord Rama and seemed to have been blessed greatly by the Lord. He had a loving wife and five healthy sons. Moreover, he was a millionaire many times over for he had greatly expanded his family business. He had a wide and loyal clientele because he was honest and meticulously professional in his transactions and deliveries.
“How can you afford to be so honest?” teased a cousin once.
“What I can’t afford is having to hide my face in shame from my Lord Rama,” answered Jana Jaswant, smiling.
This single-minded devotion was because Jana Jaswant greatly admired Lord Rama’s character. “Look how the common people of Ayodhya loved him for his simplicity and good behaviour to all, high or low. They said, ‘Rama doesn’t wait to be greeted, he greets you first. When he’s out riding, he stops and asks us about our well-being. He has no false pride and he’s always giving away things to the needy.’”
“And look how he refused to take back the throne when it was offered to him,” put in his wife.
“Exactly. He was above greed. And so forgiving! Look how well he behaved with Kaikeyi despite the terrible wrong she did him,” marvelled Jana Jaswant.
But in private, his eldest son thought otherwise. “I think Rama threw away his good fortune and wasted fourteen years in the forest,” he said scornfully, and his younger brothers, whose leader he was, scoffed with him.
Jana Jaswant was unaware of this since they carefully hid their opinion from him. Meanwhile, he did his best to live up to the ideal of Lord Rama’s generosity. He gave away his wealth in sackfuls to hospitals, orphanages and dharamshalas. He played host to holy men of every hue and bountifully fed the poor on every son’s birthday and on his wedding anniversary. He especially loved feeding the poor on Ram Navami, Lord Rama’s birthday, in the month of Chaitra, which ranges from March to April. Jana Jaswant’s wealth came to no harm from his generosity. Rather, as his good name spread, more business came his way and he grew even richer.But his sons were resentful of and dismayed by his unchecked open-handedness.
“We must stop him. That’s our money he’s wasting on beggars,” said the eldest son furiously. And a ghastly opportunity came his way. The new king of their realm turned out to be a greedy, unscrupulous ruler. Jana Jaswant considered him a low-minded person. Armed with this knowledge, the eldest son and his brothers went in a body to the king.
“O king, we are your loyal subjects. Yet our father calls you a low-minded person. He is the richest man in five kingdoms but wastes his wealth on undeserving people. We have come to you to demand our share and ask you to seize his wealth,” they said.
The king liked the idea very much. “But what shall we do with your disloyal father?” he asked.
“He is not our father but our enemy. You may drown him in the river for all we care,” said the eldest son heartlessly.
“Very well,” said the king, and within the hour, Jana Jaswant was dragged to the river, stuffed into a sack and thrown into the river, with the king watching the spectacle. The last thing Jana Jaswant saw was the wide grins of his sons at their father’s fate.
Jana Jaswant struggled to breathe in the water, concentrating his thoughts on Lord Rama. And a strange thing happened. A large tortoise swam under the sack and steadied it. Jana Jaswant was able to force open the sack and swim up.
“O king,” he called to his shocked ruler, “The Lord himself has saved me. What will you do with me now?”
Amazed by this apparent miracle, the king’s hard heart cracked and filled with repentance. He leapt into the river himself to bring Jana Jaswant to the bank. He apologised sincerely to Jana Jaswant and took him home in the royal carriage. The sons slunk away, not daring to face their father.
Jana Jaswant’s wife welcomed him back with tears of joy. They went to the puja room to bow before Lord Rama and thank him for the deliverance. But their hearts were heavy at the perfidy of their sons.
Jana Jaswant searched in his heart for pardon but was unable to find it. He re-read the Ramayana but could not attain Rama’s level of forgiveness. A terrible line had been crossed, and his self-respect, the right of every human being, would not allow him to relent. When he tried to think of his sons as sweet, lisping children, all he could see was their cruel, gloating faces watching his death.
Finally, Jana Jaswant gave his sons equal shares of money and cast them out of his life forever. Husband and wife carried on being as charitable as ever with the money they retained. No one knows what became of the five murderous sons. But Jana Jaswant is still remembered by many.